Multiple-Choice Tests Hinder Critical Thinking. Should They Be Used in Science Classes?

Critics contend that multiple-choice tests only encourage two things: rote memorization and hand-eye coordination.

This article originally appeared in the Newton blog on RealClearScience. You can read the original here


Meandering into the lecture hall, you take note of the atmosphere. The air is still. But for the faint sounds of shuffling pages, trackpad clicks, and anxiety-laced whispering, the room is silent. You take a seat, separated from your nearest classmate by an empty chair. At face value, the gulf seems superficial, and yet, when the tests are passed out, that distance will become insurmountable. Don't talk. That's cheating! It will be just you, the test, and the bubbles on the answer sheet. Those cursed bubbles...

Anyone who's ever taken a large science class in college is well acquainted with the multiple-choice test. Ingenius in its simplicity, the test comprises a set number of questions, each with a short list of responses. It's up to the test-taker to determine which is correct. Here's an example:

1. Which of the following is one of the major approaches to psychology?

a. psychoanalysis 
b. structuralism 
c. psychiatry 
d. New Age Movement

The testing strategy has been utilized for decades, with few alterations and a tacit resignation to the status quo. To professors, it's an easy, objective, and efficient way to gauge the material comprehension of large numbers of students. To students, though they may view the method as cold and unforgiving, it's a universal standard -- one they're accustomed to -- and it offers a genuine chance to guess the correct answer.

Critics contend that multiple-choice tests only encourage two things: rote memorization and hand-eye coordination. (Filling in tiny bubbles is deceptively difficult.) Since science is not about memorizing and regurgitating facts, why should future scientists be judged in such a fashion?

Compared to memorization, Professor Kathrin Stanger-Hall of the University of Georgia believes that critical thinking skills are far more useful to aspiring scientists, and to students, in general. But sadly, college is seriously inept at teaching these skills. A 2011 study found that 46% of college students did not gain critical-thinking skills during their first two years of college, and 36% had not gained critical-thinking skills after 4 years. Stanger-Hall theorizes that multiple-choice tests contributed to these dismal statistics. In 2012, she tried out a little experiment on two sections of her Introductory Biology class.

Though each section was taught in an identical fashion, one section (consisting of 282 students) was assessed using the traditional multiple-choice-only format, while another (192 students) was assessed with "mixed" mid-term exams of 30 multiple-choice questions and three to four constructed response questions, such as short answer, fill-in-the-blank, or diagram labeling. At the end of the year, each section took final exams that shared 90 of the same multiple-choice questions. Their scores on these questions were compared.

After correcting for students' grade point average, Stanger-Hall found that students in the "mixed" exam section scored significantly higher on the 90 multiple-choice questions than did students in the multiple-choice only section: 67.35% vs. 64.23%. Upon closer examination, Stanger-Hall determined that the difference was mostly due to the fact that students in the "mixed" section firmly outstripped those in the multiple-choice section on higher-level thinking multiple choice questions: 64.4% vs. 59.54%.

"The purpose of this study was to assess whether a multiple-choice-only exam format might hinder the development of higher-level (critical) thinking skills in introductory science students. The answer is a convincing yes," Stanger-Hall summed up (emphasis hers).

According to Stanger-Hall, replacing a significant portion of multiple-choice questions with constructed response questions would be a "cost-effective strategy to significantly improve the critical-thinking skills of college students." But her recommendation is not the only viable option. Social psychologist Joann M. Montepare -- who's taught college classes for 15 years -- urges a slightly different approach, one that she's already put into practice with great success. Multiple-choice tests, she says, are a great evaluative tool. But like any tool, they must be well crafted and correctly employed. Montepare described her creative assessment methods in the October 2005 edition of The Observer:

"Students come to class prepared as they would be for any other multiple-choice exam, take the exam, and then they take it home and review each question to assess whether their answer was indeed the best one. Students can use class notes, readings, and even discuss the questions with their classmates (indeed such collaboration is encouraged). As they do so, they can change their answers. Students return exams during the next class period and the self-corrected version determines their final grade, as follows. For each correct answer (no change) students receive full credit. For each corrected answer (wrong to right), students receive half-credit. Incorrect answers — originally wrong and unchanged, or changed to wrong — receive no credit."

Perhaps the largest benefit of Montepare's method is this: Instead of focusing on memorizing material beforehand, students actively research and collaborate to not only find, but also understand the answers. That sounds a lot more like how science is done.

(Image: Shutterstock)

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The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
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  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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